The Post-Stalin Thaw and a Bid For Peaceful Coexistence


Eastern Bloc After Stalin - Government

Stalin's death on 5th of March 1953 raised the possibility of a change within the Communist bloc and the possibility of a new relationship between the superpower.

Following Stalin's death, the Soviet government was dominated by 2 men:

  • Malenkov- the chairman of the Council of Minister
  • Khrushchev- the secretary of the Central Committe
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Eastern Bloc After Stalin - Unrest in East Germany

The summer of 1953 saw a series of major protests and strikes across Eastern Europe. There was unrest in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and particularly the Soviet zone of Germany. These presented challenges to the new leaders in the Kremlin.

In East Germany, there were serious protests against Communism. Walter Ulbricht, leader of East Germany, had embarked on an austere Socialist programme, leading to low living standards and high levels of inflation. His decision to increase compulsory work quotas by 10% triggered large-scale strikes and protests.

The new Soviet leaders summonded Ulbricht to Moscow and advised him to modify his policies, but he refused. When further protests exploded in June, the Soviet leadership decided they had to back his regime. Consequently, the USSR sent military forces to crush the anti-Communist risings. This was a propaganda disaster for the USSR.

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Eastern Bloc After Stalin - Warsaw Pact Foundation

In May 1955, the USSR created the Warsaw Pact. The Pact was a military alliance between the USSR and 7 Eastern European satellite states. It was formed as a response to the decision of West Germany to join NATO in October 1954, as Soviet leaders saw the enlargement of NATO as a threat. 

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Eastern Bloc After Stalin - Malenkov's New Course

Malenkov recognised the need for the Soviet Union to improve the living standards of Soviet citizens Consequently, he proposed diverting resources from defence to the production of consumer goods. In order to reduce the Soviet defence budget, he launch the 'New Course', an attempt to reduce Cold War tension and achieve Peaceful Coexistence in the West.

Peaceful Coexistence was a new theory developed in the USSR in the mid-1950s. It suggested that the conflict between Capitalism and Communism was not inevitable. Khrushchev set out his understanding in the Communist Party Congress of 1956, essentially he reversed Stalin's view that war between Capitalism and Communism was inevitable. He argued that they could exist side-by-side without military conflict. The belief in Peaceful Coexistence led Soviet leaders to seek negotiated solutions with Western leaders and justified reducing the defence budget. 

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Eastern Bloc After Stalin - Foreign Policy

The 'New Course' led to a change in Soviet policy:

  • In 1953, the new Soviet leadership contributed to the peace process in Korea, leading to an end to the Korean War.
  • In 1954, the new leadership gave up Soviet military bases in Finland.
  • The leaders worked tom improve relations with Tito who had been determined that Yugoslavia would not become a satellite state of the USSR and had therefore clashed with Stalin.
  • In 1955, Austria, which had been divided after WWII, was reunited. Consequently, the Russian Amry withdrew from Austria and it was recognised as a neutral colony.
  • The Army was cut by 20%, this was not linked to any Western cuts and aroused opposition from the Soviet military leadership.
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Eisenhower's New Look - President

Eisenhower replaced Truman as president in January 1953, he had been supreme commander off the Allied Forces in western Europe and later became the commander of NATO. He came into the office promising to stand up to Communism.

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Eisenhower's New Look - Foreign Policy

Eisenhower was determined to introduce a 'New Look' foreign policy. He quickly initiated Operation Solarium, a full review of US policy operations. He appointed an experienced foreign policy team led by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Operation Solarium established the following basic principles to guide US foreign policy:

  • National security was to include the defense of democratic and capitalist values as well as geographical territory.
  • There was great concern about the size of the defence budget inherited from Truman. Eisenhower felt that it was vital to achieve the appropriate balance between defence needs and other spending priorities. Therefore, he decided to cut conventional forces and concentrate on the nuclear arsenal.
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Eisenhower's New Look - Nuclear Weapons

Eisenhower was very clear about the significance of nuclear weapons; he had no illusions about the consequence of nuclear conflict and believed that the leaders in the Kremlin would not seek confrontation. He had no time for the concept of limited strikes and believed that a threat of massive retaliation would deter a Soviet offensive. He stated 'we must plan for total war because it is the only way to preclude any war'.

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Eisenhower's New Look - Third World Communism

Eisenhower believed that nuclear weapons would deter war between the First and Second World. However, he had a different approach to stopping Communism in the Third World:

  • Covert operations would be planned and carried out by the CIA. During his presidency, the CIA was expanded from 7 stations across the globe to 47. The CIA successfully intervened in percieved Socialist threats in Iran and Guatemala. There was also a failed attempt to remove the Sukarno regime in Indonesia.
  • A new network of alliances would be developed to safeguard US allies such as SEATO and CENTO.
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Eisenhower's New Look - Problems

As a result of his determination to cut spending, he expected thhat his allies would develop their own ground forces while the US supplied the nuclear umbrella. This didn't happen in practice, notably in Western Europe where other countries were also trying to cut their defence spending.

The US often confused Third World nationalism with Communism and as a result, missed opportunities to work with nationalist groups. This left scope for the Soviets to move in which was particulally evident in the Middle East and Asia.

In 1957, the USSR won an important propaganda victory when the successfully tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and launched Sputnik I, the first artificial statellite. Consequently, fears began to grow that there was a missile gap between the USSR and the US. The political opponents of Eisenhower stoked up fears and created an impression that the president had been negligent on his watch. In fact, U2 surveillance flights clearly showed that there was no Soviet supremacy

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Policy under Khrushchev - Personality

Khrushchev emerged as Soviet leader in 1955, Malenkov was removed from his removed from his position after the failure of his policy in East Germany.

Khrushchev's personality played a big part in the development of the Cold War, his temprament was unpredictable. He was known for his sudden outbursts of anger and didn't always consult colleagues or think through his policies. He also had a tendency to make wild claims about the scale of the USSR's nuclear arsenal. His erratic nature and crude manner of expression led to an attempt to remove him from leadership in 1957.

President Eisenhower argued that Khrushchev's tough talk shouldn't be taken too seriously. He argued that his violent words were a subsitute for real action. He recognised that Khrushchev was under pressure from the Soviet government to stand up to the US.

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Policy under Khrushchev - Policy

Domestic Aims-

  • Khrushchev agreed with Malenkov that the USSR's primary aim must be to revitalise the economy.
  • This, along with his belief in Peaceful Coexistence, had massive implications for the conduct of Soviet foreign policy, including cuts to the defence budget.
  • This created problems with Kremlin hardliners and with leaders of the defence production industries.


  • Khrushchev's approach to the Cold War was inconsistent as sometime he used menacing phrases and threatened to bury the West whereas on other occasions he was a passionate advocate of Peaceful Coexistence.
  • It seems that his personal feelings played a big part in his approach to Cold War which undermined Soviet diplomacy
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Policy under Khrushchev - The Third World

Given the cuts in military forces, Khrushchev needed to look for other ways the Soviet Union could assert itself in foreign policy and the Third World offered opportunities:

  • He tried to create allies among the newly independent states in Asia and Africa, US suspicion of Third World nationalism helped his conquest here.
  • He recognised that the Middle East, with its vast oil reserves, was economically important for the Western powers. Therefore, he established links with Egypt's President Nasser, helping to fund the Aswan Dam project, in order to challenge Western dominance in the area.
  • He built a relationship with Fidel Castro after the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
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Policy under Khrushchev - The Secret Speech (1956)

On 25th February 1956, Khrushchev made a speech that began the process of de-Stalinisation. The speech criticised Stalin for establishing a cult of personality, stating that Stalin had abused his position and perverted true Communism. The speech had significant implications for the Cold War as it provided a spur for reformers in areas of Central and Eastern Europe.

As was often the case, Khrushchev had not thought of the implications of his points before he spoke. Western intelligence obtained a recording of the 'Secret Speech' and Radio Free Europe broadcast it across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The speech breathed new life into the reformist groups, who hopedd that Khrushchev's words signalled a more liberal approach to the region. However, Khrushchev had no intention of losing control of Eastern Europe. 

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Reform in Eastern Europe - Unrest in Poland

Following the 'Secret Speech', the people of Poland began to challenge Communist rule, the first serious uprising took place at Poznan, a mining community. It focused on:

  • food shortages
  • the lack of consumer goods
  • poor housing

Khrushchev was alarmed at the situation and, under pressure from hardliners, led a delegation to Warsaw to reassert control. It had to deal with Gomulka, Poland's Communist leader who was a shrewd politician.

Gomulka made it clear that the Polish people was demanding reform, he emphasised that reforms would not affect Poland's relationship with the USSR. He had no intention of:

  • abandoning Communism.
  • leaving the Warsaw Pact.

Radio Free Europe broadcast what had been achieved in Poland and this affected the student community in Budapest, who began to demand reform in Hungary.

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Reform in Eastern Europe - Hungary (1956)

Since the end of WWII, Hungary was ruled by a hardline Stalinist, Rakosi. The new, more moderate Kremlin was eager to replace him with a Moscow nominee called Gero. However, students demanded a new leader as they believed that Gero was too close to Khrushchev.

Imre Nagy emerged as the leading reformer and his proposals for reform were moderate. However, as the momentum of the student movement grew, he began to advocate a radical break with Communism which included:

  • a multi-party election system.
  • freedom for the press.

The political temperature rose and widespread violence broke out. There was a series of outrages against the Communist Party officials, with some being hung from lamp posts.

The Soviets could not tolerate this situation and mobilsised forces to take action. It was clear that Nagy was advocating much more radical reforms than Gomulka and that the Communists had lost control of the situation. Consequently, on the 4th of November, Soviet forces began to crush the rebellion. Nagy now announced a direct appeal to the United Nations for support against the Soviet invasion.

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Reform in Eastern Europe - Significance of Hungary

The Hungarian Crisis, in which 2700 people died, illustrated the determination of the Soviets to retain their overall control of Eastern Europe. However, it also shows that the Western powers were unwilling to act to support democratic reform in the Eastern Bloc. Western leaders condemned Soviet intervention but took no action. Eisenhower was preoccupied with his re-election campaign and unwilling to risk nuclear conflict. Therefore, he made public statements of suport for Nagy but refused to send in military forces.

In spite of the West's inaction, the Hungarian crisis persuaded Western leaders that Soviet policy had not changed, and therefore that Soviet policy had no real interest in Peaceful Co-existence.

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Summits - Geneva, 1955

The Geneva Summit of July 1955 was the first meeting of US and Soviet leaders since the Potsdam conference of July 1945. The meeting was an attempt to resolve the status of Germany and begin negotiations about arms control.

Khrushchev took the initiative, reasserting Stalin's plan to create a united and neutral Germany. Th US refused accept this, West Germany had recently joined NATO and the US regarded it as central to the defence of Western Europe. In return, Khrushchev proposed disbanding NATO and the recently created Warsaw Pact. However, Eisenhower believed that NATO was essential to Western security.

Eisenhower countered by suggesting arms limitation treaties backed by an 'open skies' policy. His proposal involved agreed limits on Superpower military power. The Superpowers would also authorise surveillance flights over each other's territory to check that the limits were being adhered to. Khrushchev rejected this proposal as he did not want the West to spy on Soviet territory.

Although no agreement was reached, there was a acceptance of the status quo and an understanding that neither side wanted war. The two leaders agreed to meet again in Paris in 1960.

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Summits - Paris, 1960

15 days before the Paris Summit, Khrushchev announced that a US U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Siberia. Assuming the plane had been destroyed, Eisenhower released a cover story, claiming that the plane was a weather plane rather than a spy plane. However, Soviet forces had captured the plane and the pilot and were therefore able to prove that Eisenhower had lied to the public. Khrushchev won an important propaganda victory.

At the beginning of the Paris Summit, Khrushchev demanded an apology for the spying. Eisenhower stated that no such further missions would take place, but refused to apologise. Consequently, Khrushchev walked out of the Summit. In his Memoirs, Khrushchev singled out the U-2 incident as t point at which Kremlim hardliners lost faith in Peaceful Co-existence.

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Summits - Vienna, 1961

This summit took place in the early presidency of John F. Kennedy (JFK) who was determined to reassert US strength due to the failure of his Cuban policy during the Bay of Pigs incident.

Khrushchev regarded Berlin as the top priority, he was under pressure from Ulbricht (the East German leader) to stop the exodus of East Germans to West Germany via West Berlin. Since 1945, 2.7 million people had left East Germany. He was also keen to assert his authority at the summit by exploiting Kennedy's inexperience.

Disarmament was the US' top priority. At the Geneva Summit, Khrushchev had rejected an 'open skies policy'. Therefore, in order to help reach an agreement, Kennedy reduced the proposal from 20 annual inspection to 10.

The talks failed to reach an agreement on the status of West Berlin and on arms limitation. Khrushchev had appeared to threaten Kennedy with military action if the US continued to support West Berlin. Kennedy used the opportunity to assert his hardline position stating, 'if all else fails in Berlin, we will use nuclear weapons'.

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The Berlin Crisis - Status of West Berlin

The status of West Berlin became contentious in the late 1950s due to West Germany's economic miricle which led to 2 problems for Khrushchev:

  • The growing self-assurance of the West German government manifested itself in military as well as economic development. West Germany was building up its conventional forces and Strauss, the Foreign Affairs Minister, was arguing for access to nuclear weapons. This provoked genuine alarm in the USSR where there was still deep-rooted apprehension of an economically strong and neutralised Germany at the centre of Europe.
  • An increasing number of East Germans were escaping to West Germany via West Berlin in order to benefit from West Germany's prosperity. Ulbricht put pressure on Khrushchev to resolve this problem
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The Berlin Crisis - Khrushchev's Policies

Khrushchev decided to address the Berlin situation. He needed to reassert his own position after the crises in Poland and Hungary, which many of the Kremlin hierarchy blamed on his 'Secret Speech' in 1956.

On the 10th November 1958, Khrushchev made a speech referring to West Berlin as a 'malignant tumor requiring urgent surgery'. He delivered an ultimatum with a 6-month deadline demanding that the Western powers demilitarise West Berlin. If they did not comply, Khrushchev would hand control of access rights to West Berlin over to the East German regime.

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The Berlin Crisis - Resolution

Eisenhower was clear that he would not give in to the demand. He emphasised to the Soviets that any provocative action would have drastic consequence.

Khrushchev was unable to force the US to demilitarise West Berlin. Equally, he was not willing to start a war. Therefore, he backed Ulbricht's demand for a physical barrier dividing Berlin, designed to stop East Germans escaping to the West. In August 1961, construction began on the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall became a symbol of division, and to some extent, the most dramatic image of the Cold War. Kennedy grasped that it was essentially a defensive measure as Khrushchev had stepped back from direct confrontation.

Kennedy was determined to show his solidarity with the people of West Berlin, on 26th of June 1963, he visited West Berlin and made a speech to a crowd of over 300000 people. He was confident after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis the previous year and saw the Wall as a symbol of the stark differences between East and West. He stated that the Wall represented a propaganda disaster for the East and made it clear that the US would stand by West Berlin.

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